Saturday, July 07, 2007

Advise and Consent (1962)

Last night I watched the movie version of Allen Drury's 1959 novel of the Senate, which I discussed here a few days ago. At first I was drawing unfavorable comparisons to the book. What particularly bothered me was that there was so little time available to draw the characters I was already familiar with. But eventually I got in synch with the movie logic and found that the movie worked well. This could be a textbook example of how you can turn a big, well-known novel into a movie without trashing the original story.

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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Allen Drury, Advise and Consent

To advise and consent (or not) to various acts and appointments of the president is one of the constitutional duties of the US Senate; it's also the name of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Allen Drury, of 1959. It focuses on a hard-fought battle to confirm the appointment of a new Secretary of State (foreign minister) in an atmosphere of looming world conflict between the US and the USSR.

It's not quite certain what year this story is supposed to take place, but it's not 1959: perhaps a speculative 1967? No postwar presidents are named, and the entirely unnamed incumbent can't be any of them. The key fact, which emerges only slowly, is that the race to the Moon is almost over, and both superpowers are in a position to launch manned ships -- and they do. Drury started writing this book in 1957, the year of Sputnik, and reflects a pessimistic mood about free societies losing out to communism.

The real identity of the president is not a big mystery to anyone who read Drury's A Senate Journal. He's a figure who takes in all the most important characterstics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as seen by Drury: a man of vast personal presence and strong character, the "great seducer," a man who has done so much good and so much bad that his contemporaries will never be able to come to a rounded judgment about him. Drury, a half-century after he wrote, has succeeded in piquing my interest in FDR. Whether I'll ever have the time to follow it up, I don't know. Any suggestions on further reading are welcome.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Finishing Drury's A Senate Journal 1943-5

It's been a fascinating read; as I went along I was less and less able to put it down. Discussion of the shape of the peace, ending in the Senate's ratification of the UN Charter supplied much of the focus for the second half of the book.

There continued throughout Drury's concern for the survival of democracy in the United States in the face of executive power and the "military oligarchy" (= Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex"). Incidents most people have never heard of, and which even at the time were soon overtaken by other events, seem to have a sinister importance.

Take Drury's comments of March 25 and 27, 1945 on a bill to give the Director of War Mobilization vast and poorly defined powers to allocate labor through "labor ceilings," "labor freezes," and the regulation of hiring and firing of individuals in any industry, and authorized in advance any regulations he cared to make.

March 25, 1945....Out of the minds of 8 men...has come the most fantastic, fascistic bill ever proposed in America. It is a strange commentary on the times that it is expected to have no trouble in the House, and perhaps not too much in the Senate. By so tenuous a thread does our democracy hang, and here in the Congress, by [a list of admirable senators], the thread is about to be cut.

March 27, 1945....So it has come about, just as the dark Cassandras said it would --- the last great battle for democracy has not come on a foreign field. It has come here, at home, on the Hill. Almost unnoticed out in the country save in the intemperate editorials that have consistently misrepresented the case and begged with masochistic eagerness for the very dictatorship the press is theoretically so dead-set against, it has gathered in the House and in the Senate over the past two months. And now it has been lost in the House and only the Senate remains. It may now be the hysteria of the moment, and perhaps time will prove it to have all been a harmless thing -- yet it seems no exaggeration at this moment, here where the thing is taking placed, to say that the vote the Senate will cast sometime in the next few days is the most important it has cast. Everything which is America is at stake; and the frightful knowledge about it is that men on the other side of the Capitol, men just as patriotic and just as sincere and just as freedom-loving, have just voted calmly and matter-of-factly, and as though this were no less routine than an appropriations bill, to throw it away.

Strange resonances!

The bill was defeated in the Senate when opponents were able to show that there was no labor shortage and it became clearer by the day that the war in Europe was almost over.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Inappropriate Nazi comparisons -- December, 1944

An adage among Internet users -- incorrectly, I believe, confused with Godwin's Law -- is that if you bring in an inappropriate analogy between some evil and Nazism, you lose your argument.

Allen Drury's Senate Journal (discussed below) cites (pp. 320-1) an early and somewhat shocking example from December 24, 1944.

US Senator Alexander Wiley (Wisconsin) released to the press a statement accusing New Deal Democrats of maintaining "a perpetual scarcity in natural foods [like butter] and accustom American palates to synthetics such as oleomargarine."

Drury quotes Wiley as saying "Is the New Deal, with Nazi-like stealth, planning to complete such destruction of the home market, by employing high-sounding but wretched excuses now and after the war?"

What's noteworthy about this is that as the statement was being made, the Allied (and mainly American) forces in Europe were in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge.

Image: A US tax stamp, one of the 19th and 20th century efforts to restrict that evil oleomargerine.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Allen Drury, A Senate Journal, 1943-1945

In 1959, Allen Drury, a former political journalist, wrote a blockbuster novel called Advise and Consent, set against the background of the US Senate. I checked it out of the library recently as part of my project to read classic novels of US politics. (Suggestions are welcome!) At the same time I discovered that the NU had in its collection, unloved and unappreciated, a book called A Senate Journal (1963), an edited version of Drury's personal journal from when he covered the Senate in the last years of World War II. I picked it up and decided to read it before going on to Advise and Consent.

Well, it has been an odd experience. Drury didn't bother to explain more than a few of the features of American politics, assuming that his readers would have a pretty good idea of the issues and perhaps even the personalities of 20 years earlier. Perhaps that was justified; after all, a surprising number of Senators of that era were still in the Senate during the Vietnam War era when I remember them. (It gives one pause to recollect that!) However, even a reader whose memories stretch back that far, like me, has a hard time coming to grips now with the issues of the early and mid 40s. But the effort has been worthwhile.

One thing that shocked me is the portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt -- not yet the victor of the Second World War, not yet a semi-martyr from dying in office -- as a sneering, superior, untrustworthy man, whose wartime powers and personal attributes are a danger to the Republic. Yes, I can remember jokes about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt (the Hillary Clinton of her time) told by people who still despised them, but it seems like eons ago. Even American aristocrats who want to destroy the remnants of the New Deal by abolishing Social Security don't waste five seconds denouncing FDR or using him to fuel the engines of "conservative" outrage. He's just too remote; Carter (!) and the Clintons are the great "liberal" villains. Indeed, I can't remember the last time anyone mentioned Eleanor. (It's not just living in Canada; I read a lot of American news and opinion.) So obscurity overtakes someone who was hated with a passion by her foes for decades. Specious parallels between Eleanor and Hillary would be so easy, but nobody cares enough to do it. Might as well joke about Mrs. Andrew Jackson.

Reading A Senate Journal takes me right back to a time when many people saw the huge growth of Executive Branch power under Roosevelt as a great danger. The book insofar as it is about the war, is about the domestic management of the wartime economy, and how the transition to a peacetime economy would be handled without catastrophe or a sinister restructuring of the social system. Drury came to Capitol Hill as, or was quickly converted on the Hill to, a defender of Congress and the Senate in particular as constituting the essence of democracy. Roosevelt comes across as a far more sophisticated Huey Long, a man who does his best to bamboozle Congress with the help of his unprincipled legislative collaborators on such issues as the goals of the war and the shape of the peace. And who will be able to exploit both war and peace for their own profit.

Does any of this sound in the least familiar?

Update: An American mother connects Eleanor and Hillary.

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